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Cartoon Network Racing (DS) artwork

Cartoon Network Racing (DS) review

"The game is designed well enough that it doesn’t have to dumb itself down to hide design deficiencies. The sluggish controls from the PlayStation 2 version are here replaced with responsive ones. The d-pad works great and when you need to take a sharp corner, pressing the ‘R’ button lets you brake into a drift that will soon find you navigating all sorts of twists and bends."

If you’ve played many handheld titles over the years, you’ve probably found that many aren’t as enjoyable as one would hope. At their best, they’re often stripped down versions of the games you’d rather be playing on your television. At their worst, they can be such a mess that you wonder how they ever got past quality control. When it’s a license-based release you’re looking at, things get downright grim. Even so, there are occasional exceptions that make you forget that you’re staring at a tiny screen and that your batteries could die at any second. Cartoon Network Racing is one of them.

If you’ve experienced just about any kart racer released during the last 10 years, you have a general idea of what to expect. A bunch of mascots have assembled to race through cartoon environments while pelting each other with special weapons. Veterans of the rather specialized genre have seen all sorts of tricks, things like mushrooms and red shells and anvils and sleeping powder and anything else you might expect to find on your television next Saturday morning. The characters race through a few tracks and the one with the most points at the end is the winner. It’s simple and, when executed properly, it’s fun.

Cartoon Network Racing on the DS is executed properly, to the point where it actually provides a better experience than its console big brother. In fact, the only area where it falls behind is the visual department, but even there it does just fine. You can still unlock and enjoy cartoon clips (though they’re grainy) and you still get to look at cool environments.

The courses in Cartoon Network Racing are full of little touches that let you know the designers cared. When you’re racing along a beach and into jungle foliage, you’ll have to dodge between monkeys that emerge from the greenery. When you’re crossing a wide field, geysers erupt from mounds of dirt and send water and karts flying everywhere. If you drive through corn stalks, alien cutouts cross your path and leave you spinning. Each of the distinct environments has its own attraction, from massive rotating platters to runaway mine carts and more. The PlayStation 2 version had the flash but the DS has the substance.

It’s also fairer. Though there are occasional moments where you’ll spend most of 20 seconds spinning from enemy attacks that you couldn’t avoid, there are also long stretches of frantic racing simply because karts are jostling for position. Because the courses are tighter, the game regularly feels intense without resorting to cheap tactics. Better yet, crossing the finish line in the lead isn’t a matter of toying with lousy AI.

On the console, developer Eutechnyx employed “rubber-band” mechanics. If you took a decent lead, everyone magically caught up to you. If you drove like an idiot, they waited for you to catch them. The goal with such a system is obviously to create the illusion of a close race through and through, but it’s just that: an illusion. All that matters there is finishing while the pendulum has swung in your favor. There’s not much skill involved at all. Here, with DC Studios at the helm instead of Eutechnyx, things work differently. If you hit a wall, your kart stops and you have to back up and correct yourself before everyone passes you. If you drive through a smoke haze and slip off the course, the seconds you lose have to be taken back by expert driving. Every mistake hurts because you can’t count on your rivals to do anything but race to win.

On the lower difficulty levels, comebacks come relatively easily even if your performance is lacking. On the higher ones (which must be unlocked), your opponents show no mercy. The game is designed well enough that it doesn’t have to dumb itself down to hide design deficiencies. The sluggish controls from the PlayStation 2 version are here replaced with responsive ones. The d-pad works great and when you need to take a sharp corner, pressing the ‘R’ button lets you brake into a drift that will soon find you navigating all sorts of twists and bends. Every vehicle has different stats. You’ll feel the difference the minute you switch from one driver to the next.

There are special attacks, too. On each track, you’ll find special stars. Collect three of them and you’ll unlock a character-specific offensive move. One driver has a freeze ray, another sends out showers of banana peels and yet another has laser eyes. Such skills really give the game more depth and make it seem just the slightest bit fairer than its console big brother. Learning the location of each star also provides fun even after you can easily race through a given area and take the cup.

Stars aren’t all you’ll be looking for. You’ll also find tokens worth 2000 credits that (along with those you earn for winning races) let you unlock bonus content. Two mini-games are available. Both use the stylus. One lets you trace various cartoon faces and awards bonus points for completing your sketches under the time limit. It’s fun, though tracing lines feels surprisingly awkward considering the input device. The other mini-game lets you send karts sliding on ice in an effort to hit a target at the end of a frozen canal. Both diversions are actually quite fun and extend the time you’ll want to spend with the game.

With four difficulty levels, plenty of courses, two mini-games, a time trial mode and a versus mode so that you can play with a friend, Cartoon Network Racing is a surprisingly solid investment for any racing fan looking for the next great thing on his DS. There were a million areas where the game could have gone astray but somehow it avoided nearly all of them and emerges as one of the system’s triumphs. Don’t let the platform or the license scare you away; this one’s golden.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (January 11, 2007)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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